I read The Family Chao by Samantha Lan Chang for book club. I’ve had a mixed bag when it comes to this book club, but between the attractive cover and interesting premise, I was willing to be optimistic about this one.
What’s it about?
Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, The Family Chao follows a Chinese-American family who have been cooking up resentments for as long as they’ve been serving delicious Chinese food to white and Asian customers alike. The family patriarch, Leo, is a domineering and patronizing man whose boorish behavior has over the years driven the various members of his family away.
What’d I think?
I will say upfront that I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov; most people who respond positively to The Family Chao have done so, and speak highly of the way Chang maps the old story onto her novel. From what I can tell from reading other reviews, reading Dostoyevsky is a prerequisite for appreciating The Family Chao, even though Chang has said that the story is an homage more than a retelling. There may be exceptions, the odd reader who liked Chang’s work on its own strength, but it’s certainly not the trend.
I almost feel unqualified to discuss The Family Chao, except that the official blurb doesn’t itself reference Dostoyevsky, which makes me think that—while the inspiration is clear to any who know what to look for—Chang’s work is supposed to stand on its own two feet.
If there’s one thing that stands out to me about this novel, it’s the pacing. I don’t think I’m alone in that (or, in any case, I’d be surprised if I were), but that seems to be a minority opinion; most reviews I’ve perused point to Leo Chao as the main source of their dislike for the novel as a whole. While I agree that Leo is a despicable man, I don’t find his despicableness a mark against The Family Chao. Leo being despicable is arguably the point of the novel. It is the reason why his sons are the way that they are. He literally gets murdered for being despicable. The pacing problems are not intentional.
The two halves of the novel simply don’t match. The first half, the leadup to Dagou (the oldest son)’s party, unfolds slowly. It checks in on almost every character at every moment and lets the reader really experience things with them. Part two sprints. Most of it is told through blog posts written by a minor character, describing emotionally weighty moments that our new guide is only tangentially connected to. This both undercuts and rushes some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes. So much happens in the second half that gets blown right past.
And I get it. I do. Distancing the readers from the family lets us witness the trial the way the Chao’s neighbors would, from the outside. Stylistically, it makes sense. Emotionally, I found it unsatisfying. The Family Chao does its best work when it keeps us close to the brothers but still keeps us guessing about them, like when we see Dagou’s financial situation drastically change but don’t know until near the end where or how he got his cash.
I liked elements of the novel, like middle son Ming’s immense internalized hatred and breakdown and the loving descriptions of the food and the cultural production thereof, but a lot of it felt flat. Aside from Ming, whose ups and downs are extremely well written and deeply frustrating in the ways that good characters are, everyone is pretty flat. The youngest son is especially egregious; his lack of development or any change whatsoever considering everything going on around him is almost impressive. Most of the characters are both flat and static, which isn’t great when the story is about family and relationships. Some of them are entertaining in their outrageousness, like continually over-the-top Dagou and the pathetically stubborn Katherine, but on the whole this cast doesn’t have enough collective depth to anchor a story of this kind.
What makes it worse, though, is that it’s marketed like a murder mystery. The official blurb spoils Leo’s death and does so in such a way as to indicate that it’s a whodunit amongst the family, which is full of people who hated him. That put me in the mood for one of those classic murder mysteries like Clue or Ordeal by Innocence. That’s not the case at all. Leo isn’t killed until more than halfway through the novel, and there are only two characters that can reasonably be suspected (and one is way too obvious, making the murderer very easy to nail). That’s not a bad thing necessarily, since The Family Chao is not actually intended as a murder mystery. The book itself is half family drama, half courtroom procedural. It should have been marketed as such.
What’s the verdict?
If there’s one good thing to say about The Family Chao it is that it makes for a very good book club discussion because it has a lot of jumping off points. My book club had a great, two-hour-long conversation about it. We discussed family relationships and sibling order, discrimination against Asian Americans and the myth of the model minority, internalized racism, interracial adoption, magical realism, and more. We agreed that none of the six of us liked the book enough to recommend it except in narrow parameters—like if someone was looking for a novel about the Chinese-American immigrant experience—but that it made for a good conversation.
Clearly The Brothers Karamazov is the clear ‘read this next,’ but I figured I’d highlight a few novels I’ve read and enjoyed with Chinese-American leads:
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo is a beautiful and multi-award-winning novel about a Chinese-American lesbian coming of age during the 1950s. I don’t often read historical fiction, but I would if it were always like this. This is not a book to miss.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a gripping and tragic family drama. I wasn’t a fan of Ng’s more popular and widely-read novel Little Fires Everywhere, but this one is fantastic.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is a lavish rom-com, so it’s not particularly comparable to The Family Chao in any way beyond the most superficial. It is a lot of fun, though, and the movie is even more charming.
Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen is a YA romance so, again, it’s not very similar. It may still be worth a read if you’re just looking for some Chinese-American representation.